Thursday 11 June 2015

Life Aboard - The NYC Diaries

My cabin-mate's hands dance across the ivory keys of the grand piano behind me, as the floor beneath us gently rocks to and fro, a slow and melodic creak of the centuries-old wood accompanying the tune floating from the piano.

As I type this, I'm sat half in the doorway between the Passenger Gallery and the deck, the slow and humming American sun gradually turning my limbs a dusky pink. Above, the reflection of the water dances in silver shimmering spectres across the wood-panelled ceiling. 

Across the water I can see a couple sitting on a giant boulder, a girl playing ukulele and them both singing. 

Let me tell you about my new life. 

Last week I was Katie Oldham, a 22 year-old girl living in the town of a University I'd dropped out of months before.  I lived under the clouds in Hatfield, a tiny little corner of rural Hertfordshire and hated it, but remained for my best friends, my job, and my band. I worked at a coffee shop inside a cinema, and drove a crappy little ford fiesta which I loved. 

All of that is now gone. 

This week, I am Katie Oldham, a 22 year-old girl living on a 108 year old-boat on a different continent. I now live under the sun in New York City, and live and work as a deckhand aboard a retired immigrant ferry moored in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook on the East River, overlooking Manhattan to my right and the Statue of Liberty to my left. 

And it's important for me to stress that it is both not as good as it sounds and precisely as good as it sounds, simultaneously. But I'll get to that. 

First and foremost, this whole situation is absolutely fucking bonkers. 

Each day I find it hard to believe that this is not fictional. Not necessarily just because its great, but more so because it is absolutely the most bizarre and craziest thing I have ever experienced. And I've only been here for a few days.

The Yankee is moored in a sprawling industrial harbour in south Red Hook. Anchored up next door is the towering, colossal majesty of the rusted 'Lou-Jaine' - a cement storage liner where Lorde filmed her music video for 'Team'. (You can even see our boat in the background!) 

The harbour is surrounded by a bunch of beautifully decaying abandoned buildings, most noticeably the mighty grain tower - so stunningly derelict it is used for a multitude of photo shoots and TV show sets. On the day I arrived, I strolled past it to find Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen having a photoshoot in there, and a couple of weeks prior the folks from the show 'Gotham' were there shooting. Last night I even got to help out briefly as a runner on a photoshoot for Moncler clothing. Later, the crew came by the boat and bought us a load of sandwiches from the buffet cart as a thank you. 

However, the excitement here doesn't end with just glamour. The cement works are owned by a wealthy italian-american kingpin... and let's just say that a couple of months ago, a body washed up in the harbour in a full tuxedo, hands and legs tied behind his back and the keys to the handcuffs in his front pocket. 


Moving on... Around the corner from the grain tower, another boat is docked.


Operated by a nomadic group called The Caravan Stage Company, this boat travels all across the country mooring up in various harbours to perform, the stage being the very boat itself. 

For days on end we have heard them rehearsing into the wee hours, setting up their audiences seats on the harbour, flashing strobes and acrobat swings being mantled onto the ship.

Their show?

A contemporary tale set in a futuristic and dystopic world of pirate hacker activists taking on the largest global bank on the planet – the Mammon Corporation, residing in a “house-of-horrors”-esque superstructure.'

We got to see it for free last night, and it was hands down the most ridiculous and absurd performance I have ever seen, including opera-singing puppets with giant heads, a woman giving birth inside a giant inflatable moon and a song called 'Drastic Superbowl'.


Overall our wacky little harbour is located in Red Hook, a semi-gentrified nautical neighbourhood in West Brooklyn. I mentioned the details of it in my last post, and although a big part of Red Hook is occupied by the projects and it's not always the safest, it really is quite the wonderful little metropolis. The nearest subway stop, Smith & 9th, is just a little walk away, and from there, a 15 minute ride on the F train takes you directly into Times Square.

But life aboard the boat is just something else entirely. 

My cabin-mate, the piano player, is Chloe. Florida-born and with fading blue hair and a dress sense similar to a Picasso painting, she arrived a couple of days before I did, and during term time lives in Manhattan to study art at NYU. She makes all her own clothes, is always whistling show tunes as she works, and yesterday I saw her wearing a handmade jacket emblazoned with angry farm animals and  'PIGS AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY' in huge white letters across the back. 

Then there's Ronny from California, who dropped out of high school at 15 and picked up work as a personal assistant in a movie studio in West Hollywood. 'Trust me, you don't wanna know,' He always says. 'Al Pacino? Shits himself. That's all I'm saying.'

Paige was the girl who helped co-ordinate my arrival on the boat, who I'd spoken to extensively before my arrival. She's from Doncaster and has an almost maternally soft accent that soothes me when I'm feeling a little homesick. She's also tall and blonde with a love of lipstick, and every time we go out together in Brooklyn, it's followed by calls of 'Yo, it's the snowbunnies!' Which we always thought was super cute until we got home and urban dictionary-ed that shit.

The last of us deckhands is Nathan who introduced me aboard on my first day, a very sarcastic welshman and former professional footballer for Brighton FC. It was incredibly alarming and confusing to arrive in the depths of New York City only to be greeted by someone who knew the exact details of my hometown and the village I grew up in back in England. Crazy. He's a chef and whiskey bar enthusiast which are two things that sit very well with me indeed.

Then there's our captain, and perhaps my new favourite person in the world, Gerry. From Boston born and bred, he is exactly the caricature of what you'd imagine a Bostonian sea captain called Gerry to be like. A jack of all trades functional drunk with a wicked sense of humour, every night after the lady of the boat leaves us, we all fall about in debauchery and mischief, often watching the sun set over Manhattan with our feet dangling over the edge of the top deck, drinking outrageous ratios of fruit punch and vodka from red solo cups and laughing until we nearly pee. In the morning, I always spot him hurling bread out of the cargo deck door to the mad gaggle of Canada geese that gather for breakfast every morning, and one day he turns to me, winks and says 'I'm slowly raising my army.'

And then aside from Scupper, the beautiful little Tabby cat who sleeps at the end of my bed every night and the chickens and rabbit in their big hutch at the stern of the ship, all that remains is the one who leaves us all in equal fear and bewilderment. 

The lady of the boat, who intermittently lives aboard in her own garishly-painted quarters toward the stern of the boat, is an ageing eccentric millionairess with rainbow-dyed hair and the most alarmingly theatrical dress sense you have ever seen on a real, non-fiction person. She's also a Miss Trunchball-imitating ardent christian scientist with strict rules against alcohol, swearing or any kind of sin aboard the boat, and is OCD about cleanliness and tidiness to the point in which we are all terrified of leaving even a simple teaspoon out of place for fear of her discovering it. Yet simultaneously, she is like this other-worldly sprite, a multicoloured fairy godmother sprung right out of a fairytale. 

It is honestly the weirdest, most fascinating juxtaposition. 

To get an idea of the depth of her eccentricity, on my first day we were instructed to clear out her 'dressing room' (above) and move all her stuff below decks because the room was getting redecorated. This turned into a mammoth task of shifting hundreds of the craziest items of clothing I have ever seen, but one in particular was just the cherry on top for me.

There among its counterparts, lay a creamy sequined bodice with big poofy sleeves and a long hooped skirt of a light gauze-like chiffon... but sewn into the skirt as little pendants, among other things we discovered:

1) a used, deflated balloon

2) a mini Christmas tree
3) a scrunched up bottle of superglue
4) a real, dried fish
5) a magnifying glass
6) a troll doll
7) a teabag

8) an origami crane
9) a dice

All sewn into the dress for decoration.

If you still don't believe me, I tweeted a pic here.

And I've only heard tales of how broad her idiosyncrasies stretch. So strong is her faith, that she genuinely scratched out the word 'first' on the first aid kit and wrote 'second' because god comes first, she doesn't shower or wash her hair because she says 'the dirt just falls off me', and her husband had a stroke but she told him to just go 'walk it off' because she doesn't believe in hospitals.

Honest to god, I could not make this up.

So between Gerry and the lady (I'm refraining from using her name in this article as I'm terrified she'll find it via google) they are like two parents, a mother who is super strict and won't let anyone have any fun, and the cool dad who conspires against her with the kids and still let's them do all the cool stuff in secret.

Also, she's mortal enemies with the captain of the theatre boat, a woman called 'Nonce', who is an equally as eccentric woman with big black leather boots and a silver crop of hair, and I cannot explain the joy it gives me to imagine them as duelling pirate queens of downtown Brooklyn, with our respective deckhands waging war on the high seas. 

And so... yeah. I think that's just about it. It's been one hell of a week, and this is what my life is now. Mad huh?

As I said earlier, this is obviously undeniably amazing and I am having the time of my life... but it's important to know that this isn't all just fancy instagrams and humble-braggy tweets. I suppose I was ignorant enough to believe it would be fine, but suddenly dropping a life like that and picking up another on the complete opposite end of the spectrum has been very hard to adjust to. 

I've found that each day is so dazzling and amazing, then when it comes the afternoon and I go wondering off into Brooklyn or get the F train to Manhattan on my own, I see the towering skyline that we've all grown up to idolise and I suddenly feel incredibly small and incredibly lost. 

Who even am I? And how in god's name have I ended up here?!

I guess I feel such a pressure that I have to make friends. I have to make the most of every second. I have to find cool people to hang out with and cool bars to go to and cool coffee shops that will become my local. Just the sheer enormity of every moment colliding at once in this city, with just SO much to do ALL the time, all I can do is panic and think about all the things I'm missing out on, all the FOMO's and FOROOT's adding up to one big pile of lost-ness and loneliness.

Because truly, the only inch of familiarity I have here is the people I can bring with me in my pocket. That thankful cyber-connection with those I know and love that remind me who I am when I feel so lost, and what part I have to play in this rapidly-evolving story. Yet with the time difference, by the time I finish work everyone is long since asleep, and there I am, alone in New York City once more. 

And then I kick myself, because I've only been here ONE GODDAMN WEEK. 

I suppose I'm just still stuck in the mindset of a tourist who has to cram everything in and doesn't have time to get lost, when the truth is, losing myself is precisely what I have all the time in the world for. 

And so now, coming to the end of this piece, the warm breeze flutters through the wisps of hair around my face, I gaze out at the little ducks floating past on the river and over at the misty silhouette of Manhattan, and I think I've just realised,

That in the city that never sleeps, perhaps all I really need to do is stand still for a moment, and just breathe. 

Welcome aboard this next chapter of my life.